The AK-47 Welcome

Through Sunday's haze, Lake Nicaragua, and one of its islands, appears in the middle of this photo.

Not the pigs foraging in the ditch but rather the two stretching streetlights confirmed it. Yep, I was downtown. It was La Virgen, an itty-bitty place right on the Nicaraguan border. There appeared to be a store on the left, but my eyes were fixed on those pigs, lest they suddenly decide to cross, taking me down in the process. Being hog-trampled isn’t the way I’d ever want to fall off a motorcycle, and especially here—not in this remote and rustic region between the volcanic peaks of the Cordillera de Guanacaste and the southern shore of Lake Nicaragua. My misfortune would be the talk of the town, such as it was, for months to come.  

An hour earlier I’d stopped for gas in Santa Cecilia. The attendant filling up the bike’s tank said I needn’t worry about my personal security. He doubted I’d be able to cross into Nicaragua but guaranteed a view of the lake.  

There followed my lunch at Las Brisas de Orosi, a restaurant whose name refers to the eponymous gale that roared off the slopes of the eponymous inactive volcano. “We cook over firewood,” bragged the sign out front. Featured decorations inside the main seating area included not only the crosscut saw blades typical of any frontier outpost, but also the atypical AK-47 machine gun and a belt of spent .30-caliber cartridges.  

  

“From the war in Nicaragua,” said the owner, a burly fellow who sat down to chat. The young waitress was reading a newspaper article about the upcoming Metallica concert in San José to a slender, silent, older man who sat watching a shark-attack movie on Channel 6. My host said very few tourists come up here, and it’s primarily an agricultural area. Route 4 had indeed led through extensive groves of citrus and past a big processing plant.  

“How many people here in Santa Cecilia—five hundred?”  

“No, more.”  

“A thousand?”  

“More. It’s big!”  

But the paved road ended at this metropolis, and in subsequently trying to find my way along the border and perhaps across it, I got good and lost while traversing the slopes and gullies south of the lake. At the bottom of one hill, a red flag with a white symbol made me think I might be at a border crossing, but my continuing ahead brought no pursuit. The next time I saw a flag, there were people everywhere in the house. They leaned out of windows, sat on the porch steps, and scattered about the yard. No one spoke or moved. This absolutely had to be a government operation. I pulled up along the barbed-wire fence and took off my helmet.  

No one acknowledged me, so I addressed the boy nearest. That’s when a man rose up and explained the flag is that of a Costa Rican political party. (He named it, but I’ve forgotten.) The earlier flag was that of a rival party. The border crossing was beyond the river and over the hills. He asked someone if my motorcycle could manage the ford. The consultant thought it could. As I put my helmet on again, the boy took off down the road. Meanwhile, a cow wandered up to the fence. The man sat back down.  

As soon as I rounded the bend, the aforementioned river presented itself. It was a good fifteen yards across, flowing briskly, and appearing a bit deeper than I would have preferred.  

“Motorcycles go high,” the boy said, indicating a rickety footbridge.  

I gunned the engine and entered the water, gunning the engine a bit harder as the stream deepened on the far side, preparing myself to snorkel if necessary, and miraculously emerged on the other side, wet to the knees but still upright on two wheels.  

  

The road was narrow and without directional signs. It surprised me to see how many people lived in this hinterland. The map correctly indicated a few primitive trails and nothing more. The houses, of crude boards, were covered with zinc panels. A couple of old rattletrap Hyundais, parked at a couple of residences, were the only cars. There couldn’t have been regular passenger bus service on such a godforsaken route. And who knows about getting to school? People were lolling about on their Sunday’s respite from whatever work they did during the week. They just sat around and watched. There was absolutely nothing to do: no March Madness, Internet, computer games, Target or Home Depot or manufacturers’ outlet shops, no landscaping to revise, no woodworking projects or knitting or mountain biking or kayak paddling. For the likes of the children from these environs, I suppose, a nationwide supermarket chain that has a Tamarindo location hits up customers to donate for shoes so that schoolkids “can walk to a better future.” All throughout the district a lot of clothes had been washed during the morning; these garments now dangled on the barbed-wire fences like the aftermath of some natural disaster. There would have been dust blowing around if any vehicles had passed by. Almost the only human beings who moved, besides me, were riding on horseback or strolling along with machetes.  

I came to a small school building with two flags. Costa Rica’s own, with its wide red stripe sandwiched between white and then blue ones, was recognizable. But the blue, white and green banner with a semicircle of red on the left was unfamiliar. I concluded it was Nicaragua’s and this school was a co-op. A sign had an inspirational slogan about everyone studying to improve, and it vaguely suggested a collectivist sentiment that could have been associated with the Sandinistas. I made a left onto this road. It narrowed and dropped, twisted and turned, and then simply ended at a tiny stream, which was crossed by a couple of logs. Shutting off the bike, I listened to the monkeys and to the voice of a young girl playing and then of a woman speaking as to another adult. Heavy vegetation hid everything, even the houses. Nearest my stopping point on the trail—the word “road” had been too extravagant for the last few hundred meters—boards propped up a tree’s lower limbs and the clusters of coconuts. I started up the bike and climbed out of there.  

Ines, mounted, and Erin (?) set me straight.

In the uphill environs, near some houses I’d noted earlier, a horseman was just setting out. I put on the brakes and gestured to him.  

“I thought those flags meant the Nicaraguan border was just ahead.”  

“No.” The second one, he explained, was the Guanacaste provincial flag.  

“So there’s not a bi-national educational program with Nicaragua?”  

As graciously as possible, he said, “Pura costa rica.”   

Around the time I felt the need to turn back, that’s when I somehow conveniently found myself on the unpaved stretch of Route 4 to the east of Santa Cecilia, and I just continued eastward to a town called Brasilia (like the capital of the South American nation). Here began a 37-kilometer stretch of unpaved road through a gap between volcanoes in the Guanacaste chain. It was pleasantly cool and verdantly green. But the route turned to the west and led downslope, returning me to the warm dry savannah. My approach to the city of Liberia coincided with the sunset. The big fiesta was in progress. As soon as the bike stopped, a drunk walked up and asked, in correct English, for 2000 colones so he could get a bath. That’s about $4. I declined to help with his “bathing” and went to the correo de toros in which the young men of Liberia stand around inside the stadium and prove their virility by perhaps getting kicked in head by the bull that’s let loose among them. I watched from beneath the grandstands with plenty of fellow cheapskates. The audience squealed every time the bull was roused from its torpor. It was all fairly dull, although I could see how, for anyone who spent most of his or her time in a shack along the Nicaraguan border, the excitement would be overwhelming.  

The remaining 70-kilometers back to Tamarindo was over smooth, well-marked highway. My day’s adventuring ended after more than 300 kilometers in ten and a half hours.

Today, Monday, was my final full one in Tamarindo. I’ve devoted it to paying my departure tax in the bank; reminding the airport shuttle service that I’m not at Hotel Chocolate, as planned; and trying unsuccessfully to get a print out of the photo I took of Mayra in one of the cyber-cafes. Tomorrow morning I depart for Daniel Oduber Airport, near Liberia, and fly home.  

A view of cloud-mantled Rincon de la Vieja on the way downslope from the chain of volcanoes.
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4 thoughts on “The AK-47 Welcome

  1. Reading through your recent blog entries at last, I can almost taste the dust, see the faces you describe. You tell your story so vividly. I wonder, as I have before, how it is that you became a bold adventurer?

  2. You are indeed fearless!!! Thank you for allowing us to tag along once again! Who will play you in the movie?

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